Narwhals and belugas remain under pressure in East Greenland | Polarjournal
Hunting narwhals in East Greenland will be allowed to continue at the same rate in 2024, according to a consultation by Greenland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Hunting. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

The population of narwhals in East Greenland is far from stable, according to scientists, yet the Greenlandic government aims to maintain the annual hunting quota of 50 animals for 2024. For the beluga hunt, the five-year quota of 30 animals by 2027 is already two-thirds fulfilled.

It’s a predicament: the population in East Greenland needs fresh whale meat for a balanced diet but the populations of belugas and narwhals in the region are declining, according to NAMMCO (North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission). Despite NAMMCO’s clear recommendation in 2019 to suspend the hunting of these toothed whales for a few years to allow the populations to recover, the government of Greenland, Naalakkersuisut, had allowed the hunting of both whale species in East Greenland.

Next year, the quota for narwhals is to be set at 50 animals, as it was this year. This is according to a public proposal by the Greenlandic Ministry of Fisheries and Hunting, which cites NAMMCO’s recommendation. Nevertheless, “the Greenlandic government has maintained the narwhal catch quota for East Greenland in order to ensure the supply of fresh meat to the local population”, the proposal’s justification states.

Narwhals migrate between their summer (yellow) and winter (brown) areas. In East Greenland they tend to stay very close to the coast. The East Greenlandic population is the only one where a decline has been observed. (Map: Hobbs et al. 2019)

For NAMMCO, the government’s proposal is likely to cause further concern. The Commission has not yet been able to provide a new scientific assessment after the last one in 2019, but it is likely that the population has not increased.

However, the Greenlandic population is probably not, or only to a small extent, responsible for the decline of the narwhal population in the waters off East Greenland, but would be the one to suffer if hunting were banned. The cause of the decline in narwhal numbers is rather to be found in climate change and the increase in shipping traffic, for example by cruise ships.

Already 20 of 30 belugas harvested

The quota for belugas in East Greenland is not to be changed either – a technical quota of 30 animals has been set for the period 2022 to 2027, but two-thirds of this has already been fulfilled. It is an open question how the remaining quota of ten animals will be dealt with in the next three and a half years. In 2019, NAMMCO recommended that the beluga hunt should also be suspended for the time being.

Belugas in East Greenland are even rarer than narwhals. They are probably not a separate population, but rather “visitors” from the region around Svalbard. (Map: Hobbs et al. 2019)

Hunting quotas exceed scientific recommendation also in West Greenland

For West Greenland, where the populations of both whale species are significantly larger, the government also foresees an unchanged quota of 455 narwhals from 2023. NAMMCO, on the other hand, recommended a maximum quota of 267 animals.
The total national quota for narwhals would thus be 505 animals.

According to the government, the quota levels will only be reassessed once the results of new studies on the different populations are available.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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